Military history


London Moves to Counter a Threat


IN LONDON, the activities of the French in the Ohio Country had long been the focus of concern among the members of the Privy Council, that body of thirty or so courtiers and ministers who advised the king and acted as the heads of the principal executive, judicial, and ecclesiastical offices. Since 1748 the three privy councillors collectively responsible for the conduct of foreign and colonial affairs had gotten on badly enough among themselves, but they had always agreed that the greatest threat to Britain was, and always would be, France. First among these was Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, who held the office of secretary of state for the Northern Department, a post that gave him responsibility for conducting foreign relations with Protestant Europe and Russia. He was one of the most experienced men in Britain’s government, and nothing in his past reassured him when it came to the French. Newcastle—a man no less remarkable for his eccentricities than for his accomplishments as a politician and diplomatist—understood French policies in Europe and the New World as complementary and aimed in no uncertain way at the aggrandizement of power. He believed that Louis XV and his ministers would not hesitate to start another war with Great Britain if they thought they could gain by it. Yet he also hoped that Britain could avert, or at least delay, that war by steadfastly resisting French influence on both sides of the Atlantic. 1

Newcastle’s counterpart minister, responsible for conducting foreign relations with Catholic Europe and the Ottoman Empire, was the secretary of state for the Southern Department. The right honorable gentleman who had held that post since 1748—John Russell, the fourth duke of Bedford—had little use for Newcastle but shared his Francophobia. Finally, the first commissioner of the Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations (more commonly called the president of the Board of Trade) headed the sixteen-member panel that supervised the administration of the American colonies, as well as the trade of the empire as a whole. Although the incumbent, George Montagu Dunk, second earl of Halifax, was a person of less eminence than Newcastle or Bedford, he did his best to steer an independent course and avoid being dominated by either duke. In his distrust for France, however, he yielded to neither. From the moment of his appointment, Halifax accumulated evidence of French “encroachments” on the frontiers of the American colonies and plotted ways to increase the efficiency of imperial administration, the better to resist French aggression. 2


Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle (1693–1768). This engraving depicts a youthful duke, perhaps from the 1720s, following his installation as a Knight of the Garter. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Newcastle, Bedford, and Halifax had good reason to fear France, which seemed at the point of gaining dominance over Europe as a whole. The War of the Austrian Succession had gone badly for Great Britain and its allies. Britain’s only important conquest of the war, Louisbourg, had been returned to France at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle as the price to be paid for sparing the British army in Europe. To gain a peace it desperately needed, England had forced its chief ally, Austria, to recognize Prussian control over Silesia, an Austrian province that Prussia had conquered in the First Silesian War (1740–42). Because Austria had gone to war in 1744 intent on recovering Silesia, this concession left the Austrians deeply disaffected. Thus despite formal provisions that restored relations between France and England to the status quo ante bellum, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle left France stronger than before and weakened the half-century-old partnership by which Britain and Austria had counteracted French power. In North America there seemed equal cause for alarm, and not only because the New Englanders openly denounced the return of Louisbourg to France as a betrayal. Céloron’s expedition through the Ohio Country had been anxiously noted during the first year of peace, and French agents had been reported within Nova Scotia—a particularly disturbing development, since the overwhelming majority of Nova Scotians were French-speaking Catholic Acadians. This population, a part of the British empire since 1713, was officially held to be neutral in all Anglo-French disputes; but their loyalty to the Crown seemed, at best, dubious.

Newcastle believed that the only reasonable response to this unpromising state of affairs was to treat French actions in Europe and America as two aspects of a single policy. On the Continent he therefore proposed to strengthen what he called his “System,” a set of alliances intended to maintain the balance of power and thus to thwart French designs to impose a “universal monarchy” on Europe. Britain’s commitment to perpetuating a multilateral balance dated from the beginning of the century and had always centered on keeping France out of the Low Countries, where it could disrupt English trade and whence it could easily threaten an invasion from the superb harbors of the Netherlands. To minimize French influence in the Low Countries, Britain subsidized a variety of northern European Protestant states, especially in western Germany, allowing them to maintain armies that could be called into the field against France; it had also relied on maintaining a firm alliance with Austria, a Catholic power with strategically valuable territories in the Netherlands, and with dynastic interests opposed to France. Newcastle thus believed that Britain must offer new subsidies to strengthen the Low Countries, enabling them to refortify and rearm against a French invasion; rebuild friendly ties with Austria; and try to create alliances with Spain and Denmark, countries not yet firmly within the French orbit. These European strategies had their indispensable counterpart in Newcastle’s determination to resist all French efforts at expanding territorial holdings or influence in North America.3

To make Europe and North America the two sides of Britain’s foreign policy coin applied what Newcastle saw as the most significant lesson of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, where France’s desire to regain Louisbourg had induced it to negotiate a status quo peace, despite the current preeminence of French armies in Europe. Moreover Lord Halifax, the government official most knowledgeable in American affairs, was adamant on the necessity of stopping French expansionism in the New World. As the man responsible for supervising (and hence corresponding with) all of the colonial governors, Halifax also was the first to be convinced that the French were pursuing a dual plan of aggression in America, seeking to wall in the British provinces both in the northeast, along the Nova Scotia frontier, and in the west, by extending direct control over the Ohio Country.

Newcastle supported Halifax’s views on America in part because Halifax had once been Bedford’s political ally, and Newcastle was determined to weaken Bedford sufficiently that he would resign: a plan that proved successful in mid-1751. Equally as significant in Newcastle’s attention to winning over Halifax, however, was Newcastle’s concern with American affairs. The duke supported Halifax’s attempts to turn Nova Scotia into a bulwark against New France and the French settlements on Cape Breton Island. Newcastle’s backing made it possible to overcome Parliament’s reluctance to undertake expensive measures that included creating a new naval base (called, unsurprisingly, Halifax), augmenting its garrison, and fortifying the isthmus that connected Nova Scotia to the mainland—a course that committed Great Britain to ever-stronger measures in America. In 1750 the cabinet had authorized the use of force to resist French incursions in Nova Scotia. It thus marked no abrupt departure from a policy of responding militarily to French challenges in America when, in the summer of 1753, Halifax asked Newcastle to authorize measures that would counter the construction of French forts in the Ohio Country.

Since late 1750 Halifax had been receiving anxious reports from the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina, suggesting that France was determined to seize the Ohio Country. The most insistent warnings, and the most forcible arguments for armed intervention, had come in a series of letters from Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia—a man who happened to be not only the chief executive officer of the colony but a stockholder in the Ohio Company. We will probably never know whether his private interest in protecting the company’s claims or his sense that French control over the Ohio Country posed a threat to settlers in the Virginia backcountry (or for that matter some mixture of the two) motivated Dinwiddie to sound the call for intervention. What is clear, however, is that Dinwiddie’s warnings fell on ears already disposed to hear them. On August 21, 1753, the cabinet agreed that conditions in America were grave enough to warrant instructing all colonial governors “to prevent, by Force, These and any such attempts [to encroach on the frontiers of the British colonies] that may be made by the French, or by the Indians in the French interest.” A week later, Robert D’Arcy, fourth earl of Holdernesse (Bedford’s successor as Southern secretary) sent a circular letter to the governors instructing them to “repel Force by Force [within] the undoubted limits of His Majesty’s Dominions.”4 On that same day Lord Holdernesse also dispatched a special set of instructions to Governor Dinwiddie.

It had been His Majesty’s pleasure, the Southern secretary wrote, to order thirty pieces of artillery sent to Virginia to improve its defenses. To make it clear under what conditions these could be used, Holdernesse elaborated upon “the spirit, and meaning” of “the royal orders.” “You are warranted by the king’s instructions,” he wrote, to repell any hostile attempt by force of arms; and you will easily understand, that it is his majesty’s determination, that you should defend to the utmost of your power, all his possessions within your government, against any invader. But at the same time, as it is the king’s resolution, not to be the aggressor, I am, in his majesty’s name, most strictly to enjoin you, not to make use of the force under your command, excepting within the undoubted limits of his majesty’s province. . . .

. . . You have now his majesty’s orders, for erecting forts within the king’s own territory. —If you are interrupted therein, those who presume to prevent you from putting into execution, an order, which his majesty has an undoubted, (nay hitherto an undisputed) right to give, are the aggressors, and commit an hostile act. —And this is one case, in which you are authorized to repell force by force. Another is if you shall find persons not subjects to his majesty, not acting under his royal commission, presuming to erect fortresses upon the king’s land, and shall not upon your requiring them to desist from such proceedings, immediately forbear the continuance of them, the persevering in such unlawfull act, in disobedience of the requisition made by the king’s authority, is an hostility; and you are required by your instructions to inforce by arms, (if necessary) a compliance with your summons.5

Given the state of knowledge of the American interior current within the British government, it seems unlikely that either Holdernesse or George II could have known whether or not the Ohio Valley fell within the undoubted limits of Virginia. Dinwiddie had his own opinion, however, and that would come to matter most.

Within a year, these issues would prove to be of more than cartographic interest. Yet as summer turned to autumn in 1753, they were only one aspect of a matured policy by which Newcastle hoped to stop French adventuring short of war. At that moment other colonial matters required attention, too, and none more urgently than the deterioration of Indian relations on the northern frontier. The Board of Trade had recently learned that on June 16, a meeting between Mohawk representatives and the provincial council of New York had exploded in discord when an angry Hendrick, the Mohawks’ chief spokesman, informed Governor Clinton that “the Covenant Chain is broken between you and us.” Discontentment over the terms of trade that merchants were offering at Albany and the all-too-evident lack of interest on the part of the province in supporting the Mohawks in the previous war’s raids against Canada had already strained relations to the breaking point. Now the attempt by a speculative syndicate, the Kayaderosseras partners, to defraud the Mohawks of more than three-quarters of a million acres of their land had finally snapped Hendrick’s patience: “So brother you are not to expect to hear of me any more, and Brother we desire to hear no more of you.” 6

Halifax did not need to be reminded that the Mohawks had long been the most reliably Anglophile of the Six Nations and indeed the only one that had offered its aid in the previous war. Accordingly the Board of Trade ordered the governor of New York to convene an Indian conference to repair relations with the Indians and simultaneously dispatched a circular letter to the governors of the provinces from Virginia to New Hampshire inviting them to attend and take part in the negotiations. Availing himself, as he always did, of an opportunity to promote uniformity within the colonies, Halifax required “that all the Provinces be (if practicable) comprized in one general Treaty to be made in his Majesty’s name, it appearing to us that the practice of each Province making a separate Treaty for itself in its own name is very improper and may be attended with great inconveniency to His Majesty’s Service.”7


Chief Hendrick (Theyanoguin, 1680?–1755). This engraving, sold in London in 1755, is the last of several English images of Hendrick and depicts him as an aged, scarred warrior holding a tomahawk in his right hand and a wampum belt in his left. The laced coat and ruffled shirt accurately represent his dress, at least on formal occasions such as the Albany Congress. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

When the Board of Trade’s instructions arrived in New York, the acting governor, James De Lancey, set about organizing a conference for the following June, at Albany. Although the board had never before taken such a direct role or ordered the negotiation of “one general Treaty,” such meetings were far from unfamiliar in the colonies. Over the previous century there had been at least a dozen intercolonial congresses, in which the provinces had tried (and usually failed) to coordinate Indian policy and promote their collective security.8 Thus it might seem curious that, as a province facing an increasingly ominous French and Indian threat on its frontiers, Virginia would decline the invitation to send delegates to the Albany Congress. But the governor of the Old Dominion would choose not to ask the Burgesses to send delegates for reasons that were, in his view, eminently sound. Just before the board’s circular letter arrived, Dinwiddie had received Holdernesse’s directive of late August, assuring him that enough cannon, shot, and powder were being shipped to arm the fort that he and his partners in the Ohio Company planned to build at the Forks of the Ohio. Armed with instructions that he could interpret as authorizing him to proceed militarily against the French, Dinwiddie was prepared to shape his own frontier policy. Holdernesse’s promise of support had spared him the trouble of cooperating with Pennsylvania, and for that matter the vexation of consulting his own House of Burgesses, where members involved in other western speculative schemes would cast a cold eye on any action that might favor Ohio Company interests at the expense of their own.

Even so, Dinwiddie did not move precipitately against the French in the Ohio Country for two reasons. First, he was a prudent Scot, inexperienced in military matters and more fussy than aggressive in temperament. Second, and more significantly, his political position within Virginia was too precarious to risk provoking any crisis that might require him to ask the House of Burgesses for money. Since the summer of 1752 Dinwiddie had been embroiled in a nasty dispute with the Burgesses over the fee of one pistole (a Spanish coin worth about sixteen shillings, or five-eighths of a pound sterling) to which he was legally entitled in return for setting his seal and signature on patents for lands granted from the king’s domain. It was not so much the size of “the pistole fee” as the principle of it that infuriated Virginia’s legislators. No previous governor had ever succeeded in collecting such a fee, and Dinwiddie was trying to do it on the mere basis of his executive authority, without so much as consulting the Burgesses—much less asking them to pass a law granting him the power to collect the money.9

Trivial as it might seem, the pistole fee had ignited a political firestorm in Virginia. To allow the governor to collect it, the Burgesses argued, would be to authorize him to collect a tax—a levy to which they, as representatives of the freeholders of the colony, had not consented. Once the Burgesses invoked the Englishman’s right to freedom from arbitrary taxation, the dispute escalated into a constitutional confrontation between the powers of the prerogative and the rights of the subject. The pistole fee controversy would drag on until mid-1754, when it would be settled at last, in the governor’s favor, by a special Privy Council decision. In the meantime, and in the half-year or more after the decision that it took to sort out the political consequences of the controversy within Virginia, the governor and the Burgesses remained locked in a bitter, immobile embrace.10

Thus in the fall of 1753 Dinwiddie could not have acted forcibly to remove French “encroachments” from the Ohio Country even if he had wanted to. Instead he decided to send an emissary to the region to acquaint the French with George II’s desire that they “desist” from constructing more forts and withdraw from the installations they had already built.11 The man Dinwiddie chose for this mission, Major George Washington, was an unlikely candidate in that he had no more experience as a diplomat than he had command of French; and he was, moreover, just twenty-one years old. Yet Washington, young as he was, had three important qualifications: a close connection with the Ohio Company, the hardihood to undertake the journey, and an obvious eagerness to go. His longing to see the west and to prove himself worthy of public trust was sufficient to overcome whatever doubts he may have felt when Dinwiddie offered him the mission. Like so many of his better qualities, Washington’s capacity for misgiving was something that would only develop with time.

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